On International Women’s Day, Hilary Bradt – now in her late 70s and still one of travel’s great pioneers – argues that adventurous travel isn’t the preserve of the youngsters.
Who are the most intrepid travellers? Old ladies, of course! Magazines and TV programmes might be dominated by young adventurers, but the reality is that those forging their way off the beaten track are often a very different type. Anyone who's travelled extensively on group tours to the world's most 'risky' destinations will have observed that. I recall an elderly woman on an inter-war tour of Iraq commenting: 'At my age I don't really mind what happens to me – I want to see those places I remember from my schooldays'.
I’ve led tours to Madagascar for many years and, time and time again, it’s the ladies of a ‘mature age’ who have proved to be the toughest. All tour leaders will remember with affection the women in their 80s who have had the resilience to ignore discomforts, and the enthusiasm to pursue their travel dreams 'before I get too old'. One 87-year-old in Madagascar – at a time before the country got its act together for tourism, and facilities were far more rough and ready – had a wonderful time. That was thanks partly to the concern and help of the locals, who were thrilled to be assisting someone so close to being ‘an Ancestor’. Her niece, accompanying her, was less happy. 'I'm trying to show her she's too old to travel now! But it's not working.'
To celebrate my 70th birthday I went skydiving © Hilary Bradt
So, the adventurous spirit and commitment to the purpose of travel, never mind the setbacks, are what I associate with elderly women. I returned last week from a small group trip to Socotra, a Yemeni island off the coast of Somalia. Now, you can’t get much more off-the-beaten-track than Socotra – tourists are almost unheard of there. Forget spa hotels and classy restaurants: we camped in the hills and by the beach, with no washing facilities. And we had an unplanned overnight stay in mainland Yemen – and an armed escort to the airport the following day. Who made up this daring little party of pathfinders? A group of macho twenty-somethings? No, the majority were women, and three of those were over 75. And everyone threw themselves into the experience. There wasn’t a moan or groan all week.
I’m now starting to write the world’s first guidebook to Socotra, which will be published by Bradt in September. My co-author? Janice Booth, who is herself 81 years old, and as tough as the toughest of trekking boots.
Janice and me on our recent research trip to Socotra © Hilary Bradt
Of course, old ladies don’t have a total monopoly on intrepid travel – younger women can push them close. In recent weeks, Bradt’s commissioning editor has received pitches from two female authors wishing to write new guidebooks to a couple of countries which feel specifically male: Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. How could women, in a male-dominated society, write the detailed guidebooks we require? Perhaps 'dominance' is the crucial word. Male authors sometimes run into difficulties because they are seen as a threat, whilst women can be more easily accepted.
Saudi Arabia is a particularly interesting case since most of us will be aware of the lack of freedom accorded to Saudi women, and may remember that in the past it was virtually impossible for foreign women to get a visa. However, female travellers can now apply for a visa to the Kingdom on an equal footing to men. Perhaps this represents a recognition of the spending power of women by the Saudi authorities; if the country is to grow its tourism, then women must be welcomed. And I believe that should help further positive social change to benefit Saudi women themselves. In her pitch, the prospective author pointed out that she has the additional advantage of experiencing things from a woman's point of view, and that this can only ensure a stronger guidebook. To write a good guide, you need access to all the citizens of a country, and in a Muslim country it may be a woman who has that access.
We at Bradt have a history of publishing guides to emerging destinations. Fortunately, while two adventurous old ladies sit down to write a guide to Socotra, the next generation of intrepid female writers is also eagerly taking up the mantle.